We've spent much of this season marveling at how Rudi Garcia has transformed Roma, from the resounding victories, to the resolute defense, to the high morale, things are different. There are a number of reasons why Garcia has been so successful--a stout defense and the rejuvenation of several key players springs to mind--but Roma's performance against the lesser Serie A sides is perhaps the biggest contributing factor to Garcia's success.
Rudi Garcia has managed to do what his immediate predecessor could not; win when you're supposed to win. Whether you're facing Chievo, Bologna, or this week's opponent, Sampdoria, you simply cannot expect to contend for anything when you're gift wrapping draws to lesser sides.
Case in point, prior to their first meeting in September, Roma had only defeated the Blucerchiati once since 2009. But here we are in the nascent days of 2014 and Roma has already defeated Sampdoria twice, 2-0 in the first league fixture and 1-0 in January's Coppa Italia showdown. Sampdoria isn't the smallest side in the league, but Garcia has effectively emasculated them through their first two encounters.
Facing the prospect of ten days without Francesco Totti, making it a perfect three-for-three against Sampdoria might not be so easy.
September 25, 2013: Roma 2, Sampdoria 0
Roma had a relative easy go of it in this match, besting Sampdoria in nearly every statistical category, but this match will probably be remember for one thing and one thing alone; Mehdi Benatia's coming out party.
Although Roma would threaten a few times in the first half, thanks in part to Marquinho's misguided attempts, but they wouldn't break the deadlock until the second half. Following a few decent chances early in the second frame, Benatia would break things open in the 65th minute. Starting from 30 yards or so away, Benatia worked a quick one-two with Kevin Strootman, and then proceeded to do his best Lionel Messi impression, weaving through two more defenders, but it didn't end there. As soon as he entered the six-yard-box, Benatia was seized upon by Daniele Gastaldello, whose last man tackle nearly up-ended the Moroccan, but Benatia somehow managed to sweep the ball past the keeper with his left leg as Gastaldello was dragging him to the ground. Benatia's first Roma goal was one to remember, that's for sure.
But that was merely the icing on the cake; Benatia completed 93% of his passes, pulled off two successful dribbles, one key pass, won four aerial duels, made two tackles, and intercepted four passes in this match. This was really the first glimpse of what has become the signing of the summer; Benatia is so much more than a simple central defender.
Roma would catch Samp on the counter late in the match, with Francesco Totti picking out Gervinho on the left who beat the keeper in relatively short order to seal the 2-0 victory.
For many reasons, I try not to recycle my own words, but when discussing a side as tepid as Sampdoria, creating interesting angles out of thin air is tough, so here was my take from September:
Gone are the days when opponents had to fret about players like Giampaolo Pazzini, Antonio Cassano, or even Mauro Icardi. But when you're scored upon by the likes of Marcelo Estigarribia, Gianluca Sansone and Gianni Munari, as Roma was last season, the names on the back don't matter.
Really, not much has changed, they're still a pretty non-descript side; not even the most ardent of Serie A supporters could rattle off more than a name or two from their roster.
But the season is nearly 60% in the books, so let's examine what they've accomplished thus far.
Sampdoria enters this match 13th in passing percentage, 13th in possession, and 13th in shots conceded (if you count down from most to least); pretty creepy, right? However, Samp does crack the top ten in tackles per match, while actually leading the league in interceptions per match. So, although they're without the ball 54% of the match (on average), they're actually quite adept at winning it back. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of their top rated players are defenders, paced by Gastaldello, Lorenzo De Silvestri, Shkodran Mustafi and defensive midfielder Pedro Obiang.
While those names aren't exactly well known, you might want to pay some attention to Mustafi, Sampdoria's young central defender. The 21-year-old German is averaging 2.4 tackles and 3 interceptions per match, making him one of only nine players in the league to average at least two tackles and three interceptions per match; which is testament to not only his temerity, but his vision and anticipation. But Germany churning out top notch defenders is really nothing new, is it?
Joining Mustafi on that list is, among others, his teammate Gastaldello, but the name on the top of that heap is quite intriguing. Averaging 4.9 tackles and 3.7 interceptions per match Sassuolo's Luca Antei is, in many respects, Serie A's most productive defender, if not its best...so, umm, can we get him back, please?
Despite those impressive individual performances, Sampdoria has still allowed 32 goals, tied for sixth most in Serie A. Football is a strange game, ain't it? Given their poor possession numbers, were it not for the feats of Gastaldello and Mustafi, that number could be closer to 40 for all we know.
Offensively speaking, there isn't a ton to get excited about, either. Eder leads the way with nine goals and four assists, followed closely by Manolo Gabbiadini's six goals and two assists. There just aren't many reasons to get amped up to watch Sampdoria play attacking football, unless you count the recent inclusion of Stefano Okaka as a reason to get excited, and if that's the case, you're probably stuck in 2007.
No Totti, No Party?
We made brief mention of it last night, but the main bullet point for this match is the absence of Francesco Totti, recently sidelined with a gluteal strain of some sort. Naturally, then, the manner in which Rudi Garcia adjusts his lineup is our biggest point of perusal.
Following his injury against Napoli in October, Roma endured seven matches senza Totti. While things started off well enough without Il Capitano, after defeating Udinese and Chievo in a pair of 1-0 victories, Roma played to four consecutive draws before finally besting Fiorentina 2-1. For much of that seven week span, Rudi's Roma kept the same general shape, replacing Totti with various combinations of Marco Borriello, Gervinho, Alessandro Florenzi, Miralem Pjanic and even Marquinho, but sticking to the same 4-3-3 construct.
Really, the only formational departure we've seen without Totti this season was the 3-0 victory over Livorno in January, wherein Garcia utilized the Christmas tree, spearheaded by Adem Ljajic and Gervinho supporting Mattia Destro up top. Roma's offense on this evening was remarkably potent, peppering Livorno with 22 shots, including 10 on target, so it does remain an intriguing option.
Given the persistent injuries to Dodo and Federico Balzaretti, we might even see a carbon copy of that day's lineup tomorrow, with the XI being rounded out by Vasilis Torosidis, Maicon, Strootman, Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi.
Beyond that victory, Garcia only dipped his toe into the Ranieri waters on one other occasion, the 4-0 victory over Catania in late December. On this afternoon, Garcia opted for the 4-2-3-1, using a Michael Bradley-Miralem Pjanic double pivot, with Ljajic, Totti and Gervinho in support of Mattia Destro, who, it must be said, flourished, scoring one goal and assisting on another. So, here's hoping history repeats itself.
One could presume Totti-less 2014 version of this would see Pjanic in the hole, flanked by Gervinho and one of Ljajic or Florenzi, with Destro serving as the lone striker. With that forward third, the double pivot would most likely fall to the well-rested Radja Nainggolan and the take-your-pick/whoever-can-standup portion of DDR or Strootman.
These are good options all around, with the only wrinkle being rest; who's had it and who needs it?
Whatever formation Garcia ultimately decides upon, Roma have to cast off the shackles of the past two weeks, where missed chances and simple fatigue seemed to doom Roma. Without Totti, and with the possibility of a formational change, the key figures in this match should be The Balkan Boys.
There can be no debate, due to his position and sheer abilities, when Totti is gone, the playmaking pressure falls to the feet of Pjanic. Unfortunately for Roma, 2014 hasn't exactly been kind to Miralem, as his performance has dipped with each successive week. While this is due in equal parts to fatigue and tactical adjustments made by Roma's opponents, in order for the Giallorossi to weather the storm, they need a sharp Pjanic. No excuses, no equivocation. Without Totti, Roma cannot succeed without Pjanic picking out passing lanes to spring Gervinho and the rest of Roma's forwards.
With respect to his Balkan brother, Adem Ljajic, the picture is a little prettier. Ljajic, though not marked with consistency, has had a few standout performances over the past two months, scoring against Livorno and Verona, while dishing out two assists in the aforementioned Catania match. With Destro's struggles this past week and Gervinho being pushed to the max in 2014, Ljajic needs to be Roma's fire starter; he needs to be quick in the open field, and decisive in the final third.
February was always meant to be a hectic month for Roma, but with a little bit of luck and a lot of shrewd substitutions, we'd hoped they'd be able to survive it relatively unscathed. Now that they're half way through it, the jury remains hung. They defeated a tough Verona side with ease, dropped crucial points to Lazio and crashed out of the Coppa Italia, but with two winnable fixtures remaining, Roma still has time to turn the shortest month into a successful one.